While I was attending the Mind-Life conference in Washington D.C., I seemed different even to myself. Even though I spent hours in an auditorium seat listening or half-listening to scientists and educators discuss the possibilities of cultivating compassion, attention, and emotional regulation, I still felt rejuvenated. Somehow, all the talk about how other people could be happy was making me happy.
This was most apparent to me in the hour after I would leave the sessions. At 4:30 PM each day 1500 of us would file out of the auditorium and into the bright D.C. sunlight — the days were unseasonably warm that week and I spent one lunch hour basking in the warm of an 80 degree day. As I blinked in the bright light, I headed north on 17th street towards my hotel. The world looked different than it had that morning at 8 AM when I had walked to the conference. Colors seemed brighter, and I seemed more attentive to other human beings and objects. I stopped and noticed things that I would have walked right by before.
On the first day, as I walked leisurely back to the hotel, I noticed a man leaning against the wrought iron railing that surrounded a park statute. On other days, I might have seen that, but I might not have seen what I saw next. His had was stretched outwards to the grass, and I saw a squirrel walk towards him, place his tiny squirrel hands around the man’s finger, and bite a peanut. And, without hesitation, without my usual shyness, I stopped and said, “Do you feed them all the time?”
“Oh, sure.” He reached down into a black knapsack. “They come to me all the time.” He leaned forward and another squirrel rushed towards him, grabbed a peanut, and headed to a grassy patch at the base of statue. “The young ones won’t come to you, because they’re afraid of people. But the old ones come up all the time. If you’re afraid though, they won’t come to you.” And he held out a peanut to me. “Go ahead.”
I took one, kneeled down towards the grass, and held it out. A squirrel rushed towards me, and I felt his tiny paws with their tiny individual fingers grasp my finger, while he put the peanut in his mouth. I gave a small shriek. “Squirrel hands!” They have such tiny fingers, and I could feel each one as if it was my own. I stayed for another 15 minutes or so while we handed out peanuts and watched the squirrels shell them and eat the peanuts, or run to bury them in patches of grass. I introduced myself to the man, gave him my name, he gave me his, and we shook hands. As I walked away, and wished him a good day, he shouted back to him, “Hey! This one is saying ‘good-bye’.” And sure enough there was a female squirrel on her hind legs, paws in the air. I realized, soon after, she was really begging for another peanut.
That was the life at the conference, and then there’s the one I live now. The one that finds me typing this on my computer in a dark office early in the morning. There’s that life. The life where dishes are dirty in the sink, where dust collects forlornly in the corners of the apartment, and where a student drowses in the back of the classroom, his head leaning on the whiteboard, his mouth open slightly. There’s that life: flawed, imperfect, annoying. In Constitution Hall, where we sat for last week’s conference, even the most optimistic teacher and scientist could often think, “Compassion is all fine and good, but what does this mean for what I really do?”
And as I sit here, another stack of papers beside me, and another afternoon of teaching ahead of me, I wonder the same thing. “What does this all really mean?”
In the end, I have no answers. Sometimes I think that the classes feel slightly different if only because I am slightly different, because I have had a few days away thinking, plotting, about how others (and I?) could be happier. In class, the usual events occur. The students respond with wisecracks, the teachers bemoan the students, and the days have turned grey and cold.
I cannot say now that today will be magical, like feeding peanuts to squirrels, but I also cannot say that it will be inevitably flawed. I cannot that that they or I are definitely doomed to despair, regret, unhappiness. And, if that is all that I have received — the doubt in the faith that all the world is doomed to tragedy — then I have received more than enough.